Make no mistake. The current posture and policy of the United States are leading inexorably towards a military showdown with Iran that could have profoundly negative consequences for Iran, for the region and for the United States.
For all the studied vagueness and ambiguity of senior United States and European officials, for all the talk of a long diplomatic process, of economic sanctions and political isolation, at the end of this road lies the opening of another front in America's "Long War."
The Egyptian IAEA chief, Mohammed ElBaradei, implicitly acknowledged the high risks at stake when he appealed to both Western and Iranian leaders on March 7 to "lower the rhetoric" and adopt a "cool-headed approach." But, as the Iranian dossier now moves to the U.N. Security Council, there is little sign of such an approach either in Tehran or in Washington.
"The Iranian regime needs to know," Dick Cheney told the annual policy conference of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in Washington on March 7, "that if it stays on its present course, the international community is prepared to impose meaningful consequences. For our part, the United States is keeping all options on the table in addressing the irresponsible conduct of the regime. And we join other nations in sending that regime a clear message: We will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon."
Pressed by reporters on whether Cheney's "meaningful consequences" meant military action, hapless White House press spokesman Scott McClellan insisted that the vice president was merely "stating our policy".
But Cheney's message, delivered with symbolic, if not verbal, precision against the backdrop of a massive graphic of the Israeli national flag merging into the Stars and Stripes, was clear enough: the United States will use military force if diplomacy and economic pressure do not persuade the Iranian government to back down.
Two days later, on March 9, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice further raised the temperature, reiterating her claim that Iran is the Middle East's "central banker for terrorism."
"We may face no greater challenge from a single country than from Iran," she said, "whose policies are directed at developing a Middle East that would be 180 degrees different than the Middle East that we would like to see develop."
The problem with the United States' confrontational approach to Iran is that it is based on a misreading of the internal situation in Iran and on an over-confident assessment of the strategic position of the United States in the region in the aftermath of the U.S. military invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Diplomatic pressure, far from bringing about a change of heart in Tehran, is already strengthening the domestic political position of the hardliners around President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and reinforcing their determination to press ahead with their nuclear enrichment plans in defiance of the United States, Europe and Israel. Furthermore, President Bush's nuclear deal with India has significantly undermined the diplomatic argument against Iran by blowing a hole in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Because of the size of Iran's shadow economy and its relative economic self-sufficiency, any economic sanctions against Iran will be ineffective and could further bolster the hardliners' internal political standing. Furthermore, as Iranian officials have pointed out, Iran's status as a major oil producer means that it is in a position to retaliate to economic sanctions in kind, pushing up the price of oil.
The scarcely veiled threat of U.S. military action is no more likely to deter Iran's hardliners. Ahmadinejad calculates, correctly, that a full-scale invasion of Iran is out of the question and that United States or Israeli air strikes would simply help to strengthen Iran's political position in the region and provide a pretext for further consolidation at home (e.g. a crackdown on political opponents). Furthermore, Iran could respond to military action by piling the pressure on the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq, and on Israel from Lebanon and Palestine.
The absence of a cool-headed approach to the crisis on the part of Ahmadinejad and his supporters seems to be based on a very cool calculation of their own factional political interests within Iran's political maze and of Washington's strategic difficulties in the region.
All this points in one direction: at some point in the not too distant future, once the diplomatic process at the U.N. is exhausted and economic sanctions have failed to get the Iranians to change their tune, there won't be any options left on Washington's table except military ones. And Iran's leaders are probably right in their assessment that those options are not good ones.
U.S. firepower could do a lot of physical damage and might even put back Iran's nuclear programme by a few years. But it would also do a lot of political damage: to the prospects of political reform in Iran; to the stability of Iraq, Afghanistan and the wider region; and to U.S. political and strategic standing in the world.
The United States is making the same mistakes with regard to Iran as those which it made with regard to Iraq. The consequences are likely to be just as fraught, and perhaps even more damaging.
Although several leading members of the neo-conservative movement, which provided the theoretical and intellectual underpinning for the invasion of Iraq, have now recanted and admitted they were wrong about Iraq, the prospect of U.S. military action against Iran is not getting the critical attention it deserves.
Washington has missed several good opportunities in recent years to engage with Iran and to influence internal Iranian politics in a positive and peaceful manner. It is unlikely that any more will present themselves now or that this U.S. administration will seek to engage in bold, transformational diplomacy with the Iranian government. That would count as appeasement in Washington's current political vocabulary.
So there is no serious debate about the credible alternatives to military action in Iran. The United States is drifting unnecessarily towards military confrontation with the largest and richest state in the Middle East, with grave implications for the future of Western relations with the Muslim world. And everyone is busily pretending that it is not happening.
Tom Porteous is a freelance writer and analyst who was formerly with BBC Africa and served as Conflict Management Advisor for Africa with the British Foreign Office.
© 2006 TomPaine.com